LONG BEACH, CALIF. — For six years now, the city of Long Beach has tried to patch a gaping hole in the social and economic fabric of this sun-dappled community.
The closure of the Long Beach Naval Station in 1991 left an expanse of weeds and cracked concrete where nearly 60,000 people once worked. At one time, the base pumped $1.7 billion in wages and contracts into the local economy.
But a prospective new tenant of the old base - a Chinese shipping company offering to create 1,600 new jobs - is triggering a national firestorm of controversy.
An unusual coalition of critics - ranging from the Audubon Society to Rush Limbaugh - have condemned the deal. Environmentalists say approval to construct a $200 million cargo terminal has come without proper study of its impact on its flora and fauna. But it's the China link that's drawing the most political heat.
The government-run China Ocean Shipping Company (Cosco), one of the largest shipping firms in the world, has been involved in illegal arms shipments to the US. Last March, Customs agents discovered 2,000 Chinese-made assault rifles aboard a Cosco ship in Oakland, Calif. Cosco was not charged.
But concerns have also been heightened by reports that the chairman of one of the Chinese arms companies implicated in the arms smuggling scheme had coffee in the White House last year in an event associated with Democratic fund-raising. And an adviser to Cosco watched the taping of one of President Clinton's weekly radio programs last year.
To block the deal and "prevent a Communist Chinese beachhead at the naval station," two California Republicans, Reps. Duncan Hunter and Randy Cunningham, have introduced legislation that would prohibit the base from being leased or sold to any shipping firm owned by a foreign country.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is doing a national security review of the deal.
But the concerns have not swayed Long Beach port officials, who voted Monday to accept the plan to expand Cosco facilities onto the naval base.
Cosco, say proponents, has been operating at the adjacent Port of Long Beach since 1981 and handles about one-quarter of all US-China trade. "To indicate that a shipping terminal for a company that has been dealing legally in the US for 16 years is equivalent to a beachhead is preposterous," says Port spokeswoman Yvonne Avila.
Port officials maintain that Cosco will continue to fall under the laws governing the Port. And all terminals "are readily accessible by law enforcement agencies ranging from the Long Beach Police Department to the US Coast Guard and the US Customs Service," Ms. Avila says.
Avila points out that the only change that will take place is that Cosco's presence in the port will almost double from the currently held 80 acres to the proposed 145 acres under a new lease that would generate $14.5 million annually.
Supporters, who include Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, condemn the hysteria and "misinformation" spread by opponents. Mayor O'Neill says the bill sponsored by Representatives Hunter and Cunningham, of San Diego, is part of an ongoing effort to save San Diego's naval base at Long Beach's expense . She says the two congressmen were, "vocal and instrumental in pushing for closure of our naval shipyard ... Now they are working against our economic recovery."
Avila observes that Chinese Naval ships, invited by the US Navy, recently arrived in San Diego Bay for a friendly first-time visit to the United States. "I just can't understand why they can have Chinese battleships in San Diego, but we can't have Chinese cargo ships in Long Beach."
The affair is being closely watched in Los Angeles. Port of Los Angeles officials have reportedly gone to Beijing to lobby for the Cosco expansion if the deal in Long Beach collapses.